(December 12, 2013 / JNS) Israelis know that each and every tree is precious. When the pioneers of the Jewish state first cast their eyes on the Promised Land, it was barren. There were no natural forests to be had. And now, just consider: Israel is the only country in the world that ended the 20th century with more trees than it started with. In just six decades, Israelis have literally sunk down roots.
Of course, Israel did not accomplish this alone. Diaspora Jews have grown up dropping coins into little blue-and-white pushkes (tin cans), coins earmarked for planting trees in Israel. Many lucky enough to travel to Israel in their youth recall sticking slippery little saplings into the ground, knowing that each one made the fledgling Jewish state that much stronger.
Each sapling and coin has done its part to “green” the Jewish state. Since 1901, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has planted more than 240 million trees indigenous to the Middle East, such as native oaks, carob, redbud, almond, pear, hawthorn, cypress, and the exotic Atlantic cedar. JNF has also developed more than 250,000 acres of land and 1,000 parks.
Tu B’Shevat—the Jewish New Year for trees, celebrated Jan. 16 this year—grew out of the tithes (the amount Jewish law requires to be donated) that Jews take from the produce grown in Israel. The date when new fruits are officially assigned to the New Year is the 15th of the Hebrew calendar month Shevat, hence the holiday’s timing.
Today, Jews around the world mark Tu B’Shevat by eating fruit, particularly the kinds mentioned in the Torah as Israel’s natural gifts: grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates.
But in Israel, where trees are nothing less than a relatively recent miracle, Tu B’Shevat isn’t just a passing nod to our leafy-boughed friends. It’s a real live holiday marked by countless tree-planting ceremonies, ecological consciousness-raising programs in schools and communities, and seders for young and old alike—minus the matzah. It is in many ways a holiday ahead of its time, says one Israeli rabbi.
“Tu B’Shevat is really the celebration of spring time, yet it is in the middle of the winter, because it’s really the festival of faith, and particularly faith in the land of Israel,” Rabbi Binny Freedman, Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City, tells JNS.org.
After all, it was in Israel that 17th-century Kabbalistic master Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of Safed and his disciples instituted the Tu B’Shevat seder, modeled after the Passover seder. Here, each of the fruits and trees of the Land of Israel were given symbolic meaning, including fruits with hard shells, inedible pits, and those that are completely edible.
In addition, four cups of wine (or grape juice) are drunk in a specific order and in varying shades of red, pink, and white, representing the cycle of life and seasons.
For many years, the Tu B’Shevat seder was an important event for the children in the elementary school in Kfar Saba, where Israel Lenchner was principal. They were among Israel’s poorest kids, the majority of them from Ethiopian families. “Five hundred years ago, the rabbis of [Safed] would eat 34 fruits and vegetables that night, telling their stories and speaking of their love for Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel),” Lenchner, who is now retired, tells JNS.org. “That’s why, for all the years I was the principal, we always had the seder of Tu B’Shevat.”
But Lenchner didn’t do it for the children alone. “As important for them to know the stories, the wisdom and the traditions that have been handed down to us about the land, it’s just as important for us that they know it, that they truly love this land and this people,” he says. “That’s why every year we made sure they heard it, so they could grow up appreciating what they—and we—have been given here.”
The tree planting was an Israeli tradition even before JNF got in on the act. On Tu B’Shevat in 1890, Rabbi Ze’ev Yavetz led his students on a first planting outing to Zichron Yaakov. The a tradition was embraced in 1903 by the JNF and taken up in 1908 by the Jewish Teachers Union. A few years later, JNF devoted the holiday to planting eucalyptus trees in an effort to drain the swamps and halt the malaria that had attacked the communities in the Hula Valley. In honor of the tradition of this holiday of new beginnings, the laying of the cornerstone at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem took place on Tu B’Shevat in 1918, as did those of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in 1925 and the Knesset in 1949.
These days, more than a million people each year attend JNF’s Tu B’Shevat planting ceremonies in Israel’s largest forests. But trees have proven not to be immune to violence. In 2006, after the destruction of 10,000 acres of forest by Katyusha rockets, JNF launched Operation Northern Renewal to begin replacing much of the topsoil that had been burned away and replant the forest.
“Through 2,000 years of exile we never stopped believing that one day, we would come home,” says Rabbi Freedman. “Which is why this Jewish festival is being rediscovered in Israel, because anywhere else in the world it is by necessity missing something. A celebration of coming home makes the most sense… when you are home.”
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Correction: This story initially stated, “Since 1903, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) has planted 250 million trees indigenous to the Middle East.” The correct year is “1901” and the correct number of trees is “more than 240 million.”